Talk for Sunday 3 May 2020

Talk for Sunday 3 May 2020

Christopher has managed to video his sermon this week!  You can watch it on Google Drive: just click on the link here and then on the ‘play’ arrow in the image:

But in case you’re unable to access it that way, here it is in full:

Contagious Christianity?   Sunday 3 May 2020. Easter IV.

The Resurrection Season.

We are now 6 weeks into the lockdown and three weeks away from Easter Day. The set readings for Sunday are already wandering away from the resurrection appearances but before we forget them for another year I want to take an overview to find some relevance for us today in this situation of isolation when we crave the assurance of hope, of company, of health and of Christ.

It all begins with the empty tomb on that first Easter Day.  That is enough to raise the suspicions of both friends and foes of Jesus.  No trace of a body: just an alibi about body-snatchers spread by the Jewish guards. The empty tomb doesn’t offer evidence, just questions.

The Resurrection Appearances

Those questions soon get answers of a sort as the Risen Lord starts to appear. He appears first of all as a stranger to Mary at the tomb; then to the apostles in the upper room, to the disciples on the lakeside and to the travellers to Emmaus.  Is it Jesus?  No one is sure until he begins to interact with a name (John 20.16), the blessing of bread (Luke.24.30), his wounded hands (Luke 24.39) or some fishing advice (John 21.6). Caravaggio’s painting of the Supper at Emmaus shows just how amazed the disciples were when the stranger reveals himself as Jesus. One chap can’t wait to get away from his chair!

This strangeness suggests that Christ’s appearance has changed in some way. He passes through locked doors (John 20.19) and yet is able to cook breakfast (John21.12), eat fish and honey (Luke 24. 42). But there is another element to this strangeness: Jesus rebukes the disciples for their lack of understanding (Mark 16.14; John 20.23) but also gives them instructions as to how they should conduct their future lives (John 20.17; Mark 16.15). So those who knew Jesus before the crucifixion have to learn to live with this friend who is also a stranger in a different way after the Resurrection.  We all know people who are difficult to predict. They are often the most exciting but also infuriating friends to have!  So the Risen Lord must have appeared to those first disciples but also to us who need both companionship and divine direction which cannot be presumed.

The appearances of The Risen Lord are not confined to any particular geographical area. Jerusalem and Galilee are the favoured places and they are 100 miles part. Damascus is much further north.  There is no obvious connection between these appearances. They don’t appear to be induced by hysteria, hallucination or a desire for consolation. The most surprising of all is the appearance to Saul, the aristocratic Jew fervently opposed to Christ and his friends. His conversion is well documented in scripture (Acts 9; 2 Corinthians 12) because for him and for The Church it was a seismic change.

The Risen Christ also comes among his friends who are ill at ease. He changes them. Mary is grieving for her compassionate Christ; the apostles are afraid of the Jews; Peter is riddled with guilt; the fishermen are glum and most of them are disbelieving. None of them are in a good place yet this challenge by The Risen Lord changes them. They boldly gossip the gospel (Acts 4.13); they exercise healing gifts (Acts 3.6); they worship in public (Acts 2.42) and they courageously challenge authority (Acts 5.29ff).

So here is a mystery.  What drives such a change – and how is it sustained? People of faith have put the answer down to The Risen Lord: the Lord who came to those first Christians as a stranger, in a variety of locations, with boldness, with compassion but also with a message. The fruits of that mystery – that string of appearances from The Risen Lord – is to be seen in The Church today.  These are the groups that began to form in the first pages of the Acts of the Apostles – that most exciting of biblical books which accelerates through church development like a whirlwind! It is around these encounters with the Risen Lord that the church gathers and develops, then and now.

A virus?

Does this sound like an infection? Richard Dawkins in a clever book from 1976 suggested that God acted like a virus, a selfish gene which looks after its own.  He wasn’t the first sceptic to use such an analogy.  During the Roman occupation of the Mediterranean, Christians were hunted down and if they didn’t recant, then they were killed. Pliny – a Roman magistrate – was sent to Bithynia to sort out the province. He had to put many Christians to death. In a letter to his boss, The Emperor Trajan, he refers to Christianity as a “contagion.”

Apart from the implied negativity – especially in these desperate times of the current pandemic – that is difficult to accept. The appearances of The Risen Lord are scattered. Sometimes they do run among friends but in other occasions the most surprising people become Christians. There are no physical symptoms which connect us and there is no evidence that the faith manifests itself in a weakness.

And Christianity has lasted a long time: two millennia.  Whilst countries in Europe still wait for signs that the coronavirus has peaked, there is no sign of Christianity abating world-wide, though in Europe it is struggling. Whilst we wait behind locked doors, there are signs that our faith is developing. One firm reports that its sales of bibles are up 25% in March this year. Other sacred texts show similar increases. And our behaviour has changed. In spite of the curfew, care for neighbour and community has increased, especially in our villages.

St. Paul, writing soon after the physical resurrection appearances had ceased, reminds us in a passage often used in our funeral services (1 Cor. 15.3,4) that Christ died, was buried and was raised. This third action – ‘was raised’ – is in a different tense, suggesting that the raising has happened but is still in force. Christ is alive now! And this is so obviously true, even in our own experience. People find Christ entering their lives often in the most difficult situations.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Christopher Armstrong


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